Kia Race To The MVP Ladder

Kia Race to the MVP Ladder: Warriors' duo developing on-court harmony

Brevity of time as teammates hasn't kept Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry from playing well together

No imaginary timetable was put in place the Golden State Warriors’ star tandem of Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant to figure each other out.

As in their recent tradition, the Warriors decided to let things evolve organically, with the last two winners of the Kia MVP Award (Curry the past two seasons; Durant in 2014) left to sort things out themselves.

It’s a form of on the-the-job training, if you will.

And it’s safe to say that after just a few months, both Curry and Durant have found a groove. The Warriors are a league-best 43-7 after Thursday night’s smashing of the LA Clippers, marking the Golden State’s ninth straight win against a team some picked to challenge them in the Western Conference this season.

Curry and Durant shared Western Conference Player of the Month honors for January, when the Warriors went 12-2 and led the NBA in scoring (120.3 points), assists (30.6), field goal percentage (.509), blocked shots (6.71) and the all-important point differential (+14.1).

The competition in the Eastern Conference is trying to slog through the tall grass that is the pre-All-Star break stretch of the season. Meanwhile, the Warriors are cruising behind their two superstars — who, as it turns out, fit together just fine.

That doesn’t mean Durant and Curry have cleared all of their hurdles. They’ll have to prove this chemistry translates into the postseason as well. But it’s clear their mutual admiration of each other’s game has gone to another level now that they’ve had time to adjust.

“People talk about him [Curry] changing the game,” Durant said after the rout of the Clippers, a game that saw him start at power forward for the first time since college. “A lot of younger players want to play how he plays. But his skill allows him to play that way, the shot making and the ball handling, the passing and just the fundamental skills of basketball that you learn as a kid.

“He’s been fine-tuning those for years. He didn’t have the athleticism and quickness that most of these guys had but his skill is something that he worked on. And you can see it now, he’s flourishing now using the fundamental skills of the game. And he’s going to be playing for a long, long time doing that.”

If the Warriors have their way, Curry will do it for a long, long time with Durant sharing the floor, the spotlight, the glory and the responsibility of chasing championships for a long, long time.

Now to this week’s KIA Race to the MVP Ladder:

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1. James Harden, Houston Rockets

Last week: No. 2

Not even Harden’s scintillating 41-point, eight-rebound, eight-assist night was enough to hold off the Atlanta Hawks’ Tim Hardaway Jr. (who scored 23 of his career-high 33 points in the fourth quarter). Harden is still cruising along (29.4 points, 9.8 assists, 7.8 rebounds, 2.2 steals in his last five games) but the Rockets are staggering towards the much-needed All-Star break.

2. Kevin Durant, Golden State Warriors

Last week: No. 3

Sharing Western Conference Player of the Month honors with Stephen Curry is the most appropriate way for Durant and the Warriors to start 2017. He was spectacular last month, checking all of the boxes (27.4 points, 7.1 rebounds, 4.6 assists sand 2.07 blocks). And he’s just getting comfortable in his new digs (26.6 points, 7.0 rebounds, 6.6 assists, 1.2 blocks in his last five games).

3. Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder

Last week: No. 1

Who knew Enes Kanter was this important to the Thunder’s bottom line? They’re 0-3 without him since he broke his forearm. Westbrook is still plowing his way through the crowd, regardless of the opponent, but is only shooting 40 percent since Jan. 25. (29.4 points, 9.0 assists, 8.6 rebounds, 1.4 steals in his last five games).

4. Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs

Last week: No. 4

Leonard has fueled the Spurs’ two-game win streak while showing off his considerable wares, too. He’s rebounded better and facilitated better in wins over the Thunder and Sixers without his scoring and defense suffering. His night in and night out consistency (25.5 points, 7.3 rebounds, 4.3 assists, 1.3 blocks in his last five games) is truly remarkable.

5. LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers

Last week: No. 5

With the Charles Barkley drama (hopefully) behind him, LeBron can get back to the business of trying to put some distance between the Cavaliers and the competition in the Eastern Conference playoff chase. Sure, he could stand to play fewer minutes this time of year, but there’s work to be done. (26.0 points, 10.2 assists, 9.8 rebounds, 1.4 steals in his last five games).

6. Isaiah Thomas, Boston Celtics

Last week: No. 6

Mr. Fourth Quarter is making the ends of Celtics games a must-watch. No matter what goes on in the three quarters prior, Thomas owns the final 12 minutes. He’s also bullying his way into the seemingly already overcrowded conversation about the best point guard in the league. (36.2 points, 8.0 assists, 3.0 rebounds, 1.2 steals in his last five games).

7. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors

Last week: No. 7

Curry is reminding us more and more of his two-time reigning Kia MVP self with every outing. He has been at his aggressive best the past month, shredding the competition with his scoring (four games of 30 or more and two with 40 or more) and playmaking. (26.8 points, 5.6 assists, 3.8 rebounds, 1.4 steals in his last five games).

8. John Wall, Washington Wizards

Last week: No. 8

If you were sleeping on Wall and the Wizards early on this season, there is still time to jump on the bandwagon. And that includes folks in the crowd Thursday night who made the mistake of cheering for the visiting Lakers, who Wall punished for 33 points and 11 assists to lead his team to its 16th straight home win (22.4 points, 11.0 assists, 4.2 rebounds, 1.6 steals in his last five games).

9. Paul George, Indiana Pacers

Last week: Not ranked

He suffered through a brutal shooting night on the road in Orlando and yet the Pacers still managed to win their fourth straight game. That ugly night interrupted a stretch of four straight games that saw George drop 30 or more to jump-start this current run for the Pacers. (27.4 points, 6.2 rebounds, 3.4 assists, 1.2 steals in his last five games).

10. Gordon Hayward, Utah Jazz

Last week: No. 9

The Jazz have quietly moved into the top position in the Northwest Division behind the work of Hayward, Rudy Gobert and the supremely underrated George Hill. And if you want a snapshot of exactly what Hayward provides, just watch what he did in Wednesday’s win against Milwaukee. (18.2 points, 5.4 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 1.0 steals in his last five games).

Next five (listed alphabetically): Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks; Jimmy Butler, Chicago Bulls, Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans; Marc Gasol, Memphis Grizzlies; Kyle Lowry, Toronto Raptors

Next up?

An inside look from a Western Conference scout at Mike Conley:

“You know that somebody is going to get squeezed in the All-Star stuff in the West because there are just so many quality point guards to choose from. But I really think this guy has been the key to the Grizzlies’ season. He’s been so good, taken such great care of the ball and he’s handling it so much more in [Grizzlies coach David Fizdale’s system] than he did before. That’s always been the thing about his game that I’ve loved. In an era where guys are handling the ball more than ever and turnovers are overlooked sometimes, he’s never had that issue. Physically, he’s sturdier now and stronger than ever. He’s been in the league a decade and he’s still getting better, which requires some serious dedication on the part of a guy who has only known one team, one organization. It would have been easy for him to relax after cashing in the way he did over the summer. But just like DeMar DeRozan, he came into this season with a chip on his shoulder, with something to prove, and that’s great to see. That’s the kind of work ethic you look for from your franchise guys. You build around guys like that for the long-term, guys with the talent, skills, character and work ethic to be leaders on and off the floor.”

Sekou Smith is a veteran NBA reporter and NBA TV analyst. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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